Where faith resides

When William Dalrymple was coming of age on the shores of the Firth of Forth, I was growing up a lonely, feral youth a couple of hundred miles to the north. In our old house under Ben More Assynt, there was no television, so I filled my time with books of the sort Dalrymple would go on to write, not least the travel writing of Bruce Chatwin, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Jonathan Raban.

Dalrymple, four years older than me and astonishingly precocious, published In Xanadu, about his journey from Jerusalem to Shàngdu, in 1989. This was two years after Chatwin’s The Songlines had appeared, a book Dalrymple calls in Nine Lives “that wonderful study of restlessness.”

I mention my own childhood only to remark on the profound effect that travel writing can have, or at least had on my younger self, for it was The Songlines that led me out of the hills. It inspired a form of longing. Yet since it was published, something has shifted. Chatwin and Kapuscinski have died, while Raban set up home in Seattle, turning to novels.

For much of the past two decades, lonely young readers in search of adventure would have had to look for inspiration in tales of those setting up home in Provence, in journeys with aunts, cats and even fridges, or in books with titles such as A Stingray Bit My Nipple!. None of which would be awful, I’m sure; but I doubt it would sate the romantic earnestness of youth.

Fifteen years ago Dalrymple himself turned from travel writing to history. In a recent newspaper article, he argued that the future of the form lies not in “the epic journeys, often by young men, conveying the raw intoxication of travel during a moment in life when time is endless, and deadlines and commitments are non-existent.” Instead, it lies in the writings of “individuals who have made extended stays in places, getting to know them intimately.” This could describe Dalrymple’s life so far, since he has ended up on a farm outside Delhi, and made a lifelong study of those around him. Nine Lives is a travel book, but it is also a series of biographies which unpick the rich religious heritage of the subcontinent.

Chasing faith
The book opens with the story of Prasannamati Mataji, born in 1972 into a wealthy family of merchants in Raipur. Loved and protected, she dismays those closest to her when she is drawn to the ascetic purity of Jainism, for which she must pluck out each strand of hair, wear unstitched white cotton saris (the men go naked) and walk the world’s roads wholly reliant on charity. In terms of travel writing, she is the perfect exotic subject, but her tale loses its foreignness when we learn that she fell in love with a fellow nun, a love that ended in her losing the will to live.

Prasannamati is a character who burns for a chapter and then becomes a memory, restless and unforgettable, as we turn to the next life. At the book’s beginning, there is a pretty, hand-drawn map showing where each of these nine people have settled, for almost all have travelled themselves, whether because of war or instinct, until they discovered some sort of tolerable existence propped up by faith.
So it is that later we find Lal Peri Mastani, the “ecstatic red fairy” of Sehwan Sharif in Pakistan. Dalrymple, told about her by a fakir, asked how he would find her, and is told that she is “dressed in bright red, is very fat, and... carries a huge wooden club.” Dalrymple keeps the style simple. He hears of a character and then hunts them down, telling us of the first meeting. Then, having arranged to meet them again, he takes down their story, much like one of the anthropologists who used to travel the subcontinent recording the epics told by illiterates. He lets the stories do the work. So Lal Peri, an Indian from Bihar, is exiled three times as the political strife following decolonisation buffets her, until, beside herself with loss and pain, she dreams of an old man telling her, “Now you are all alone, I will be your protector. Come to me.”

Shortly afterwards, she is handed an amulet containing the image of the same old man and is told that it is Lal Shahbaz Qalander, a great Sufi saint, an ascetic who purged himself with fire, and she is directed to his shrine. The celebration conducted by the tomb is, again, an image that my younger self, caught in the darkness on a Scottish winter, would have imagined crawling into: “The drumming rapidly gained pace, and the long line of dreadlocked dervishes began to move as they felt the rhythm pound through their bodies. Old men began to sway, arms extended or cupped in supplication, mouthing softly murmured prayers... One man fell to the ground in a gesture of namaaz, then amid the jumping, jerking, dancing men, stretched out full-length on the floor. The air was hot with sweat, and the rich, sweet scent of rose petals mixed with incense and hashish.” And yet, Dalrymple has another purpose here: to deliver an argument he has honed while watching the damage wreaked on India and Pakistan by Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi Islam.
Perhaps in the age of mass travel, familiarity has bred contempt. The shelves in the travel bookshops are now weighed down with guidebooks, while readers who yearn after other places seem to choose detectives stories set in the likes of Scandinavia (Henning Mankell), Cuba (Leonardo Padura Fuentes) and Botswana (Alexander McCall Smith). Yet at its best travel writing beats fiction, firing the imagination with tales of foreign peoples drawn close by our common humanity.
That this book also makes its political points more powerfully than any newspaper article, while quietly adjusting a reader’s attitude to faith, builds its importance. This is travel writing at its best. I hope it sparks a revival.

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